Remembering the Immortal Ivry Gitlis (1922-2020)


December 26, 2020, 5:22 AM · “Larger than life” is no cliché when applied to violinist Ivry Gitlis, who recently passed away at age 98. A household word to musicians in the classical, jazz and even rock worlds, it seems well-nigh impossible to think of the man and his music in the past tense. International press and social media are replete with eulogies from French cultural ministers to leading lights in the music world — all unanimous in the observation that Ivry, known to all by his first name, was one of a kind.

Entering the world as Yitzhak Meir Gitlis during the turbulent interbellum years between the world wars as peace hung on a tenuous thread, he chose the name Ivry, meaning “Hebrew.” He later said that the name was chosen “as hell broke out in Germany in the 30s, so that my identity never would never be in doubt.” Born in British Mandate Palestine to immigrant parents who had found refuge from rampant persecution in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, Ivry characterized himself as “something of an interloper who was destined to survive.”

Before reaching the age of 10, news of his prodigious aptitude for the violin reached the great Bronislaw Huberman, who took charge of a musical future that led to the Conservatoire de Paris and lessons with the likes of Georges Enescu, Jacques Thibaud and Carl Flesch. His burgeoning concert career was preempted by the march of terror that precluded World War II.

Fleeing to precarious safety in England, Gitlis worked in a munitions factory and subsequently joined the British Army. He once quipped that his best audiences were comprised of soldiers, “they listened as if their lives depended on it.” Decades later, he was honored as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

Violinist Ivry Gitlis. Photo by Ben Bonouvrier.

As fluent in Shakespeare as he was in musical genres, Ivry personified “to thine own self be true.” Not one to waste a moment of that precious “elixir called life,” he played as if his life depended on every note. As a music man of many colors, he accompanied Heifetz, strutted his stuff with the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Eric Clapton as well as jazz superstars too numerable to mention. His penchant witticisms and general clowning around stood him in good stead as an actor: Ivry was selected to play a role, perhaps no coincidence considering his spellbinding power on and off stage, as a hypnotist in François Truffaut’s 1975 film L’Histoire d’Adele H (The History of Adele H) starring the ingenue, Isabelle Adjani.

Beyond his mind- and ear-boggling virtuosity, super-speed vibrato, bel canto legato and scores of performances certainly not recommended for the faint of heart, he used his piercing intelligence to analyze just about anything and anyone that crossed his restless, probing mind. Just as likely to spend time with café waiters as with royalty, he eschewed snobbery. To generations of musicians who flocked to his Paris home, international master classes and famed Keshet Eilon sessions in Israel, he communicated much more than the conventional pedagogue: Ivry was poet, philosopher, life coach and a game changer with an intense dislike for playing career games and practicing endless hours for the sake of technical mastery.

Heart on his sleeve, every note he played had a soul of its own and spoke in its own language. Playing and often living on the edge has its dangers. Many who crossed his path speak of Ivry-the-impossible and Ivry-the-impetuous, often to the point of no return. Snapping his fingers to give emphasis, he observed, “never take the opinions of others too seriously, The flame of life flickers out in a split second and we are here for but a split second in the scheme of things. Embrace it and take it into your heart and turn it over in your mind before you collapse in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea.”

Violinist Ivry Gitlis. Photo by Ben Bonouvrier.

To indulge in another brief walk down memory lane takes me on a trip to Paris some 15 years ago. On a busman’s holiday break from professional responsibilities, I was delighted to receive free tickets to a concert featuring a young up-and-coming violinist at Salle Pleyel. My 8-year-old daughter was equally delighted to discover that French concert halls offered ice cream during the interval. While I negotiated a place in the highly unsystematic line of elegantly clad locals to score the coveted sweet my daughter grew more and more excited.

Not the long wait for a treat but the sighting of a great violinist led to the clarion call: “Look, look, there goes Ivry Gitlis!” Raised with the sounds of Uncle Glenn (Gould) and Uncle Fritz (Kreisler) the next step in her listening journey had led to Ivry Gitlis. And then, the magical moment transpired. Leaving a large coterie of fans and bearing an impish grin, Ivry hastened over toward us, stopping to ask, “Why would such a lovely young girl recognize this old man?” In response to, “From your cd covers,” he rejoined with a twinkle, “Do not waste your precious time on me, and if by chance you play the violin, remember that to play, you must first live.”

Performing far into his 90s, Ivry graced Amsterdam to give masterclasses and a well-publicized televised appearance with protégé Daniel Rowland in October 2017. Nuggets of wisdom from the master class experience were disseminated in this blogpost in 2017.

Happenstance (or rather the fact that modern hotel room windows do not open) had led to alternative arrangements, and Ivry ended up staying in our home. Two whirlwind evenings — punctuated by strings of anecdotes, pearls of wisdom, much laughter, and a trial run playing my violin — brought the inimical Ivry experience home.

Ivry Gitlis at our home in 2017. Photo by Ben Bonouvrier.

Those who reach for the stars often attract criticism. To some detractors, his rendition of the Franck Sonata was not “French enough” and to others his chamber music collaborations smacked of egocentrism. Judge for yourself by indulging in an impressionistic, iconoclastic wash of memorable performances. Rhythmic freedom, the ability to wring agitato out of a what the score notates as a tranquil phrase before a descent into diabolic pathos, his interpretations reaches the lowest depths before ascending to unimaginable heights.

Amongst classic legends such as the concerti of Sibelius, Paganini and Bartok and the jewels within a selection of nineteen masterpieces available on YouTube, it is the second movement of the Berg Concerto that opens the gates of heaven.

To those who had the privilege of passing through his magical, madcap cosmos of musical expression, his light shines forever.

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